At a Glance
Easier to see than most owls, the Short-ear lives in open terrain, such as prairies and marshes. It is often active during daylight, especially in the evening. When hunting it flies low over the fields, with buoyant, floppy wingbeats, looking rather like a giant moth. Aside from its North American range, it also nests in South America and Eurasia, and on many oceanic islands, including Hawaii.
All bird guide text and rangemaps adapted from Lives of North American Birds by Kenn Kaufman© 1996, used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
Coasts and Shorelines, Fields, Meadows, and Grasslands, Freshwater Wetlands, Landfills and Dumps, Saltwater Wetlands, Tundra and Boreal Habitats
Alaska and The North, California, Eastern Canada, Florida, Great Lakes, Mid Atlantic, New England, Northwest, Plains, Rocky Mountains, Southeast, Southwest, Texas, Western Canada
Direct Flight, Soaring, Undulating
Range & Identification
Migration & Range Maps
Northern birds are strongly migratory. Also somewhat nomadic, concentrating where there are temporary high populations of rodents.
16" (41 cm). Pale buffy look, streaked chest, black around eyes. Short "ear" tufts are seldom obvious. In flight, shows black mark at wrist, buff patch in outer wing; paler on belly than Long-eared Owl.
About the size of a Crow, About the size of a Mallard or Herring Gull
Black, Brown, Tan, White, Yellow
Long, Narrow, Rounded
Rounded, Short, Square-tipped
Songs and Calls
Usually silent; on nesting grounds, a variety of barks, hisses, and squeals.
Hoot, Raucous, Scream
Prairies, marshes, dunes, tundra. Found in open country supporting high numbers of small rodents. Nests most commonly on tundra, inland and coastal prairies, extensive marshes, farmland. In winter also found in stubble fields, small meadows, coastal dunes, shrubby areas.
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3-11, usually 6-8. White, becoming stained in nest. Incubation is apparently by female only, 24-37 days. Male brings food to female during incubation period.
Male brings food for young, gives it to female, who actually feeds the young (and broods them in cold weather). If nest is threatened, adults may fly at intruder and make loud wing-clap, or sit on ground with feathers ruffed up, wings spread and tilted forward, to look as large as possible. Young may leave nest on foot after 12-18 days, can fly at 27-36 days.
Hunts by flying low over the ground, often hovering before dropping on prey. Reportedly finds prey mostly by sound but also by sight. May hunt by day, especially in far north, but mostly active at dawn and dusk.
Mostly rodents. Feeds mainly on voles, also other rodents such as lemmings, deer mice, pocket mice. Also eats shrews, rabbits, gophers; rarely bats, muskrats. Eats birds, especially in coastal regions.
In courtship, male spirals up into the air, hovers while giving series of short rapid hoots, then dives, clapping the wings together loudly under its body. Nest site is on dry ground, often on a raised hummock or ridge, especially in marshy country. Usually among tall grass or under a shrub. Very rarely above ground. Nest (built by female) is a depression in soil, lined with grass and feathers.
Has disappeared from many southern areas where it formerly nested. Loss of habitat is probably the main cause.
Audubon’s scientists have used 140 million bird observations and sophisticated climate models to project how climate change will affect the range of the Short-eared Owl. Learn even more in our Audubon’s Survival By Degrees project.
Climate Threats Facing the Short-eared Owl
Choose a temperature scenario below to see which threats will affect this species as warming increases. The same climate change-driven threats that put birds at risk will affect other wildlife and people, too.